Has the stud running back gone the way of the leather helmet?
A year ago, for the first time since the AFL and NFL merged into a single draft in 1967, there wasn't a single running back drafted in the first round. And according to most prognosticators, it will happen again Thursday night when the NFL begins its three-day selection process at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
It's been clear for some time that the position isn't producing the iconic NFL stars it once did. The Vikings' Adrian Peterson is one of the few modern-day running backs performing at a level that could one day put him among the position's all-time greats: Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton, O.J. Simpson, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders.
Given the swing-and-miss potential of any selection, the draft is a chancy proposition. But the running back position is extra risky given the wear and tear those athletes endure. Most teams aren't willing to spend first-round dollars for a player so susceptible to injury.
Offense has changed
Another big factor is scheme. Both the college and NFL games are now driven by the quarterback, often as both a runner and passer, paired with running backs who are typically smaller, shiftier and utilized in open space rather than sent directly into the line.
"Thirty years ago, tailbacks were the most important thing, controlling the football, controlling the clock. Now everybody's throwing the ball 40 times a game," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.
In one five-year period starting in the late 1970s, running backs were the first pick of the draft four times -- Ricky Bell by Tampa Bay (1977), Earl Campbell by Houston (1978), Billy Sims by Detroit (1980) and George Rogers by New Orleans (1981).
There hasn't been a running back taken No. 1 overall since Ki-Jana Carter by Cincinnati in 1995.
ESPN analyst and former Raiders and Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden also cited backs such as Herschel Walker, who signed with the USFL's Houston Generals in 1983, and Bo Jackson, taken first by Tampa Bay in 1986, as examples of do-it-all power backs who used to be ideal centerpieces for an offense.
"If you wanted a strong running game, you needed to get a great running back," Gruden said in a recent conference call. "That was how your offense was set up, to run the football, be a good play-action team. Those times obviously have changed."
Gone are the days when Heisman Trophy winners such as Simpson in 1969 and Campbell in 1978 were brought in to rescue struggling offenses with 25 to 30 carries and a combination of power, instinctive running ability and game-day breakaway speed.
Bruce Kebric, a former Raiders scout who was with the Oilers in the late 1970s, said the Oilers never even put a stopwatch on Campbell.
"Fred Akers, the Texas coach, told me he was the fastest guy on their team -- and they had sprinters like Raymond Clayborn and Derrick Hatchett," Kebric said. "Line them up, and he wouldn't win. Put him on a football field, and he'll beat them."
Backs are crapshoot
The production level of running backs is unpredictable. Six running backs have been top five picks since 2005 -- Trent Richardson (No. 3 to Cleveland in 2012), Darren McFadden (No. 4 to Oakland, 2008), Reggie Bush (No. 2 to New Orleans, 2006), Ronnie Brown (No. 2 to Miami, 2005), Cedric Benson (No. 4 to Chicago, 2005) and Cadillac Williams (No. 5 to Miami, 2005).
All were outperformed by backs taken later in the draft -- in some cases much later.
This season's top backs include Ohio State's Carlos Hyde, Washington's Bishop Sankey, Auburn's Tre Mason, LSU's Jeremy Hill and Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey. It will be a surprise to analysts if any of them have their names called before Friday's second and third rounds.
"I'm definitely going to make sure they know when I step onto the field they made a good pick and running backs aren't going extinct," Carey told reporters at the NFL scouting combine.
The Raiders and 49ers have usually spent their first-round picks on other positions. The 49ers have used only four first-round picks on running backs since 1967, and the Raiders have used three. Oakland took McFadden in 2008, Napoleon Kaufman at No. 18 in 1995 and Marcus Allen at No. 10 in 1982.
The 49ers haven't used a first-round pick on a running back in the modern draft since Dexter Carter at No. 25 in 1990, and the only others were Terrence Flagler (No. 25, 1987), Earl Cooper (No. 13, 1980) and Wilbur Jackson (No. 9, 1974).
Frank Gore, the 49ers' all-time leading rusher, was a third-round draft pick out of Miami in 2005. Roger Craig and Ricky Watters were second-round choices in 1983 and 1991.
Gore is a rarity in that he is entering his 10th NFL season while playing a position with an average career span of less than three years, according to the NFL Players Association.
You can pick them late
With the NFL dominated by the passing game and a growing number of quarterbacks who can also run, general managers are more apt to use their first-round picks on every-down players.
"There's a realization that you can find running backs in the second, third, fourth and fifth round -- and even beyond that who are going to produce," Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff told USA Today.
When NFL rules began to restrict contact against wide receivers in the 1980s, teams gradually came to see passing as a more explosive way to score points.
NFL teams have in a sense been forced to follow the lead of college football, which is heavy with option-style offenses that spread the ball around and often have the quarterback doing much of the running.
Teams realize that at the college level, there are very few guys averaging 25, 30, 35 carries a game," ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. "Teams are looking to get guys in space. Running backs, for the most part, aren't those big, bruising backs who can do everything."
Said Gruden: "When you look at running backs in college football, you never know if they're going to get the ball because the quarterback pulls it out of his stomach half the time and keeps it himself."
Speed over power
Option offenses demand runners with more speed and cutting ability rather than raw power, and as Kebric noted, "Guys who are 225 pounds don't change direction that quickly."
Given the potential for injury and basic economics, teams prefer a centipede approach, with alternating running backs and fresh legs.
"If teams are rotating guys in and out and certain players are better in certain areas than others, they're thinking maybe we should be spending on two backs what we used to be spending on one," McShay said.
In a copycat league, Mayock believes the run-first personalities of the 49ers and Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks could bring back the classic power back.
"The two best teams in the league utilized the tailback and the running game, and I wouldn't be surprised to see if that comes back in vogue," Mayock said.
Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie understands the trend has gone away from running backs but is hesitant to see it as anything more than a cycle.
"There could be five running backs taken in the first round next year," McKenzie said. "You never know."
Top RB selections over past 20 years. PAGE 7
The Bucs thought so highly of Bo Jackson, right, in 1986 that they took him first overall despite Jackson's saying
he wouldn't sign with Tampa Bay. He stuck to his word.
DRAFT TV SCHEDULE
Round 1: Thursday, 5 p.m. ESPN; Rounds 2-3: Friday, 4 p.m. ESPN2; Rounds 4-7: Saturday, 9 a.m. ESPN